The Fruit of the Spirit 4. Peace

John Webster
Parts one, two, and three of this series can be found herehere and here ~ Mark McDowell, the Editor

Even the best of us find it hard to think clearly about peace, because so much of our life is absorbed by conflict - conflict with ourselves, or with others, or with God.  Discord is so constant a companion that we may come to think of it as our natural state, and of peace as, at best, a distant prospect, at worst, unattainable.  Yet love of peace remains in us, sometimes dulled, at other times sharpened, by strife and unrest.  'Peace', says Augustine, 'is a good so great, that even in this earthly and mortal life, there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zest, or find to be more thoroughly gratifying.'  In this mixed and ambiguous state, how may we come to know and enjoy peace?

We need to step back from our immediate experience.  Peace, like joy, is an emotion.  It is that satisfying feeling of tranquillity which comes upon us when we find our lives well-ordered and able to rest.  But the emotion - so desired, so gratifying, Augustine tells us, and yet so elusive - is not the essence of peace.  Peace is first of all a disposition of our created nature when it is flourishing.  Though peace generates the emotion of tranquillity, it is not a transient mood; it is that well-being (with its accompanying emotion) which arises when our lives stand in right relation to God and other creatures.

Because this is so, the peace which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit is to be understood, not simply as serenity in the temper and conduct of our lives (though it will be manifest in that), but as a condition in which we are placed as our nature is restored by God.  If our minds and spirits are to come to know that regenerate nature, moreover, we have to follow the direction laid out for us by divine instruction.  This is because Christian thought and meditation are never random or erratic; they run in a given sequence, and only as they do so are they fruitful and edifying.  To attend to the gospel's teaching about peace, we must begin with the God of peace, the one who not only makes peace but is peace in himself.  From there, we move to consider peace as a creaturely reality: its origin, its nature, its associated emotions and moral acts.  We are to study, next, how sin warps our nature and throws our condition into disarray, and how it robs creatures of harmony and tranquillity.  We are to consider - with the deepest gratitude and sense of wonder - the merciful works of the God of peace who through Christ sets enmity aside and through the Spirit makes peace a lived reality.  And, finally, we are to consider peace in the realm of regeneration in its three-fold form: peace with God, peace in the common life of the church, and personal tranquillity.  


Everything that Christian faith says and thinks about peace in human life is preceded and enclosed by the reality that God is the Lord of peace who gives peace (2 Thess. 3.16).

God is in himself 'the God of peace' (Rom. 15.33, 16.20; 1 Cor. 14.33; 2 Cor. 13.11; Phil. 4.9; 1 Thess. 5.23; Heb. 13.20).  To speak of the God of peace is not simply to speak of God as one who bestows the peace which keeps our hearts and minds.  It is to say that God is peace.  God's peace in himself is incomprehensible, it 'passes all understanding' (Phil. 4.7); God in himself is mystery, and eludes the reach of the knowledge of faith.  Yet what faith cannot comprehend it may nevertheless acknowledge and try to represent and commend through words and concepts which give form and a name to what is beyond our grasp.  So we may say that God's peace in himself is the harmony and repose of his being as the three in one.  God's peace is the complete accord of his inner life as Father, Son and Spirit, the perfect order of their mutual relations as they participate in the one undivided divine nature.  In God there is no disruption, divergence or discord, no need for reconciliation, no distance to be overcome.  God in himself is perfect unity of being, will and working, and so peace beyond measure, simple peace.  To this divine harmony, there corresponds divine repose.  In himself God is entirely at rest.  There is in him no striving for a completeness yet to be attained; God is entirely and perfectly himself, and so entirely and perfectly at peace. This divine repose is not inertia: not rest from his works but rest in his works, an effortless fullness of life and activity. Such, Christian faith confesses, is God's peace; limitless in scope and duration, undisturbed, lacking in nothing, wholly resolved and composed.

Why begin talk of the Spirit's peace here, apparently so far from the conflicts by which our lives are ensnared and which bring such turmoil and misery?  Because the God of peace is the most real reality that there is. If we are to understand our nature and condition, and especially if we are to try to make sense of the strife which afflicts us, we have to allow our minds and affections to be drawn to that divine peace. The goodness and utterly preponderant reality of the God of peace are often eclipsed by the conflicts in which we are embroiled; yet those conflicts can only be understood and healed when we are converted - turned to - the peace which God is. As this conversion takes place, we come to see the world and ourselves in a new way: not as overwhelmed by contention and opposition, but as determined by the supreme reality that God is peace and is the foundation of the peace of his creatures.  


What is the creaturely peace of which God is the foundation?  Augustine once again: 'The peace of all things is the tranquillity of order.'  Created peace arises from order.  Creatures are peaceful when their lives are not a mere random conglomeration of unrelated elements, but arranged within themselves and in relation to one another and to God.  In this arrangement, each creature has a given nature, place and vocation in relation to God and alongside other creatures, and all together constitute a congruous, integrated whole.  Each creature, and all creatures together, manifests that harmony or order which provides the form in which creatures can fulfil their nature and so conduct their lives in a settled and peaceful frame.  Disorder - the misplacement or disarrangement of creatures and their relations - issues in conflict; order generates peace.  

This order is established by God the creator, who bestows upon creatures their nature and sets them in relation to one another and to himself.  And it is maintained by God's providential care, that work of divine love and fidelity which preserves and governs creatures and directs them to fulfilment.
What God establishes is an order of life: not a static system but a concerted set of movements, a harmony which is discovered and fulfilled as it is lived out. This order of life is made up of two overlapping relations: the relation of creatures to God, and the relation of creatures to other creatures.  The right order of creatures' relation to God may be characterised in a number of ways: by glad acceptance of our given nature, its appointed place and ends; by lively pursuit of the fulfilment of that nature in accordance with God's purpose; by love of the one who has loved us first; by all those exercises of our nature which complete on our side the fellowship with God in which he has caused us to exist.  The right order of creatures' relation to others is characterised by embrace of the fact that we are not solitary or autonomous, but have our lives in company with others, and so by love in all its many ways of acting.  Taken together, these relations are the wholesome form of our created humanity.  Enacting them compliantly and energetically bears fruit in a peaceful frame of life: in devout fellowship with God, concord with others, and personal composure. 

Sin has disturbed this peaceful created nature and has sought to destroy it.  Human sin is a rejection of the wholesome order in which our created nature flourishes.  Sin defies the fact that our given nature is to be lived out in relation to God its maker and to the others with whom we have been set in company.  Sin is a bid for independence, perverse and determined pursuit of the destructive ideal of being who we are without God or our fellows.  We cannot, of course, unmake our given nature or untie the relations by which we are bound: these gifts of life remain, because God's creative goodness cannot be defeated.  But instead of being enjoyed as forms of created vitality, they are resented as limitations or inhibitions, and so they become occasions of conflict.  From this arises the loss of peace by which sinful creatures are afflicted.  We are 'hostile to God' (Rom. 8.7), and God's disposition of our nature must be opposed.  We are at enmity with each other, our common life spoiled by 'enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit' (Gal. 5.20); and so we forfeit the tranquillity which is the inner aspect of a well-ordered life:
...the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot rest,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked. (Isa. 57.20f.)
'The wicked', Calvin comments, 'shall have continual war and incessant uneasiness and distress of heart.'


Sin has no power to overthrow the purpose and order of God.  In the face of disorder and conflict, God's determination of creatures for fellowship with himself and concord amongst themselves is accomplished in the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit. God the Son constitutes and effects peace with God, abolishing enmity and establishing the domain of reconciliation. God the Holy Spirit draws creatures into this domain, distributing peace, applying it and fostering it in common and personal life.
What may be said of this work of divine grace in making and sustaining peace?  It is effected in the mission of God the Son, who comes to creatures to reorder created reality by bringing about 'peace on earth' (Lk. 2.14).  In his ministry on earth, he enters the realm of discord and with supreme charity and authority speaks it away:  'Go in peace' (Lk. 7.50).  In his passion, he takes upon himself, and so takes away, the violence and disorder of fallen creatures. Because he is the prince of peace, his suffering is not one more episode of conflict; he makes peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1.20).  Risen from the dead, he blesses those to whom he manifests himself:  'Peace be with you' (Jn. 20.19).  Because he is and does these things, there arises peace with God, and peace among and within creatures.  Further, the peace which the Son of God establishes and leaves with creatures is distributed and applied by the Holy Spirit, in and as whom the God of peace is with us (Phil. 4.9).  And so, there comes about 'Peace ... in the Spirit' (Rom. 14.17), the peace which is the Spirit's fruit.


The Spirit realises peace with God and the concord of Christian society.

'[T]he Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.' (Jn. 14.26f.) The Spirit teaches and reassures believers that through Christ they are at peace with God. The Son gives enduring peace to believers; through the Spirit they come to know and trust this peace as a lived reality.  As they do so, they attain a measure of freedom from sin's distress and unsettlement. The Spirit is therefore the one by whom believers participate in and make their own the peace which is theirs in Christ.  '[In] me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.' (Jn. 16.33)

Yet this peace is not fully realised:  unshakeable in prospect, but imperfectly present.  How do believers deal with the persistent tribulation which this imperfection entails?  We are to learn to read our lives truthfully, and to govern our emotions by aligning them to what we learn. Christian peace rests on steady knowledge that our condition has been irrevocably changed and reordered - that we are the friends of God.  Further, Christian peace understands that continuing disturbance and disarray, however real and bruising, does not indicate that Christ has not or not yet overcome the world, but simply that his finished work is not yet fully realised in us. And Christian peace in the present therefore rests on knowledge of a coming heavenly peace: complete, unalloyed, without hindrance, without end. To learn such things and make them part of the framing of our lives requires habits of attentiveness to the places where the Spirit brings these good things to our remembrance: most of all, to Holy Scripture, and then to the lived instruction of the communion of saints.

The peace which is the Spirit's fruit is also known in life in common. Sin fractures human society; as God reintegrates our lives by reconciling us to himself, he also reorders relations with others, and founds the church as the society in which created peace is being realised in prospect of its heavenly completion. By this movement of divine goodness there comes about 'the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' (Eph. 4.3). This peace is a divine gift which accompanies the altered situation of believers, in which life together is no longer defined by conflict of wills but by goods enjoyed in common:  the goods of Christ and the gospel.  But peace is also a task, the human undertaking of 'pursuing what makes for peace' (Rom. 14.19). This is not making peace out of nothing - that is a matter for God alone - but peaceable conduct which recognises and makes visible the peace which is the given condition of the Christian community, following and testifying to the prior work of God.  'Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body' (Col. 3.15).  The rule of peace summons believers to all those (to the world, incomprehensible) habits of life which subvert conflict and promote tranquillity in common: lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance (Eph. 4.2).

Can fallen and reconciled creatures live such a life?  Of ourselves, no.  But we are not of ourselves, we are animated by the Spirit, and so able to pray with confidence: 'O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we being delivered from the hands of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.  Amen.'

John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word; a two-volume work God Without Measure will be published in the Fall